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Newsletter > September 2007 > "DELTA ZETA SUES DEPAUW"
DELTA ZETA SUES DEPAUW
Tim Burke, Manley Burke, email@example.com
As happens from time to time with all Greek organizations, Delta Zeta identified one of its chapters as having significant problems. The Delta Zeta Chapter at DePauw University had declined in membership to a dangerously low level, jeopardizing its existence at a time when it was just short of its 100th anniversary.
By the spring of 2006, the DZ Chapter had only 57 members, compared to the next smallest DePauw sorority chapter with 114 members. Going into the fall semester of 2006, the DZ Chapter had only 42 members. That August, the Chapter voted by a majority not to recruit new members for the 2006-2007 year. Had the Chapter followed through with that plan by not recruiting new members, it would have been forced to close its doors at the end of the school year. National representatives of DZ met with the DePauw administration a month following the vote. The University urged DZ not to close the chapter and, according to DZ, DePauw’s Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life recommended to DZ that they instead conduct a membership review. That is what DZ did.
In order to reverse this trend and rebuild the Chapter, National DZ officers began conversations with Chapter members about rebuilding the Chapter. Ultimately, DZ did a wholesale review of the current Chapter members and, after interviews with each of the 35 members of the Chapter, proposed to give 23 of them alumnae status. The goal was to rebuild the Chapter to 90 members by 2009, working from a core of 12 continuing members. The 23 who were asked to go on alumnae status received their notices December 2, 2006. Shortly thereafter, the Chapter reorganization exploded into the national press, with the New York Times leading the way. The Times summarized its view of what happened this way:
The Sorority evicted 25 members of its DePauw Chapter in December, and half a dozen other women later quit in protest. The action greatly diminished the Chapter’s diversity. The women the Sorority allowed to stay were all slender and conventionally pretty. Those evicted included some overweight women, and several minority members were evicted or left the sorority on their own.1
When the subsequent controversy hit the press, the University reversed its position and criticized DZ for its actions. The University was particularly critical of the fact that the results of the membership review were announced to the members shortly before finals were to begin. As the media controversy swirled, the University ultimately announced that DZ was no longer welcome on campus.
On March 28, 2007, the Delta Zeta Sorority filed suit against DePauw University in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.2 The suit, which contains 92 separate paragraphs, makes eight specific claims against the University, including promissory estoppel (that is that the University made a promise to Delta Zeta on which the fraternity relied, and as a result, the University may not go back on that promise now); breach of contract; defamation; tortuous interference with current business and prospective business relationships. In support of its breach of contract argument, Delta Zeta attached to its complaint University documents setting forth the standards fraternity groups are expected to comply with and establishing how they are recognized by the University.
The University has responded with its answer denying directly or for lack of knowledge many of the claims made in the DZ lawsuit. For example, while the University denies that its Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life recommended DZ conduct a membership review, it admits that he “offered examples of two fraternities that had conducted successful ´membership reviews´.”
At this writing, the litigation remains pending and is still in the relatively early stages of the discovery process. Fraternal Law will continue to follow this matter. There are several things that can be learned from this controversy already:
1) Membership reviews may be an effective tool for dealing with a chapter that is in trouble, but they must be conducted with care in compliance with the rules and procedures of the Fraternity;
2) Timing can be a significant issue and the timing of when the review is conducted or the results announced should be carefully evaluated to ensure that it has as little impact on the academic calendar as possible;
3) While there were obvious efforts by DZ to work with the University, which ultimately failed, it is important that the University should understand that a review is underway and what the consequences of the review might be, including discussing in advance with the University what the housing situation would be for those members who may be asked to leave the house. DePauw, as a part of its reaction to this controversy, announced that in the future it would not permit membership reviews to disrupt housing arrangements in the middle of the school year; and
4) Public relations is an issue that should be considered as well and efforts should be made to identify potential negative public perceptions. A fraternity engaged in a membership review should be prepared to deal with those negative perceptions.
1 NewYork Times, “After Evicting Members, the Sorority Itself is Evicted,” March 13, 2007.
2 Delta Zeta Sorority v. DePauw University, United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Terre Haute Division, Case No. 2:07-CV-0059-RLY-WGH.